UNITAR International University was established in 1997, and represents as one of the first Private Higher Educational Institutions in Malaysia. CEO of the private university, Wan Ahmad Saifuddin Wan Ahmad Radzi, speaks to PM Communications.Many economists are highlighting that there is a high relation between FDI, economic growth, and higher level of human capital. Do you think that human capital development is the key variable in order to escape the middle-income trap?
The middle-income trap is an important issue and I think a large majority of the population is starting to feel it as a threat. If you combine inflation together with cost of living, you notice that the remuneration process is not keeping pace. For example, property prices are not affordable in Malaysia; they are going crazy and keeping the pace with this situation is not possible.
I would say that the perfect example is Iskandar. Today Kuala Lumpur is the most developed metropolis. It suffered a little in 2008 from a shift in investment trends, when a lot of investors from Middle East withdrew their investments and set them in Singapore. However, today Iskandar differently from the Eastern and Northern corridor, is growing very successfully. Its financial district is now coming out, as well as education, which is becoming an interesting model. Our school has several partnerships, such as Newcastle Medical School, Southampton Engineering School, or Netherland Maritime Institute. Moreover, Iskandar is located only 45 minutes from Singapore city centre. Thus, the biggest FDI attractor in Malaysia is Iskandar, with its properties, its investments, and its educational institutions.
Regarding human capital, we contribute directly to its development. In fact, we have several partners in the leisure and tourism sectors, such as KidZania, for example. When those companies open up to recruitment, they come to us to look for qualified personnel. Recently, KidZania came to us to interview 60 of our graduates; after the interviewing process was over, they hired all of them. That is a testament of the quality of UNITAR.
Unfortunately, those industries are the ones that lack human capital the most. In addition, there is not enough students in Malaysia able to fill all the positions. On the other side, I think a lot of students are not exposed to the potential of the region. Therefore, the ASEAN countries are proposing to create a market together, and I think Malaysia, in order to move forward, needs to look to the South.How do you think UNITAR is supporting this economic transformation from labour-intensive economy towards a knowledge-based economic paradigm?
There are two priorities here: wholesale and retail, and tourism. Both of them are linked. In this case, development of human capital is essential. Thus, we help companies to develop training programs, in order to be able to supply a certain amount of working force.
A third component, which is not very well known is the open entry licence. The Malaysian Qualification Agency uses a scheme based on prior experience, when setting the requirements for the selection of personnel. However, this requirement is limited to 5% of the total population of students.
Two things must be taken into account when talking about education: first, school level; only 40% of the 50,000 graduates go to training; second, the large number of under qualified people in the workforce.
UNITAR is able to address both problems, by providing an up-skilling opportunity for the students, to get them better qualifications. Recently we have helped the Ministry of Defence by furnishing a high quantity of human capital to work in the civil service, an industry that employs 20% of the population.
However, a problem linked to getting an advanced degree is how to reach out to all those people who can’t afford an advanced education. In that sense we provide free courses, to get people with technical vocations accessing to higher level of education.
We have made a conscious decision, and I think many institutions are starting to do this as well, in considering technical vocation as a changing force of the future of this country.UNITAR is very focused on ICT. How is UNITAR integrating innovation and technology in the learning techniques?
I have some background in e-learning. We have implemented a system for PETRONAS for 25,000 employees. You can find a UNESCO case study from 2005 on how we conduct e-learning. I think that the market for e-learning has changed dramatically. The acceptance of learning through the computer is well-established.
When I came to UNITAR, I had to upgrade a system, which was fifteen years old. Today we are focusing on online technology; we are using Moodle, for example, as a learning platform and we are rebuilding our campus measurement system to support it. E-learning in UNITAR has always existed but it was never really highlighted. Now we are relying on it mostly. One of the requirements of our e-learning distance program is to actively participate to an online forum that will become part of the student degree. However, overtime things ossify a little bit.
I reckon that the education system has to change. The essential need here is to become more flexible and interactive. We are restarting everything and trying to make this system unique. We want to emphasise that e-learning is not just a sideline, but it is actually core to teaching and learning. In order to put this into practice, we need infrastructures in place and implementation of the training process. On the other side, face-to-face lectures will be used for the discussions, to enrich the experience, rather than teaching the basic facts. This represents a huge push for us. We are partnering with big companies such as Microsoft, Lenovo and more.
The biggest obstacles to e-learning are cost of development and working out the assessments. Last year we took a decision to grant all students a tablet, in order to give them access to our distance program. This explains our partnership with Lenovo. The model of tablet that we offer belongs to the Malaysian stock. Students cannot find it anywhere else in the world. Approximately we get 4,000 units a year.
Another challenge to the e-learning system is that we have ten regional centres around the country. Rolling out tablets with e-books and giving the students time to download the material is a logistical challenge we are addressing. We also have eleven Ministry of Defence e-learning centres, with army personnel to be trained on how to use tablets.
I got my inspiration from Eyring and Christensen’s book “The Innovative University”. I used this book because of the comparative case study it focused on and I utilised it as some sort of benchmark, a checklist of things I wanted to achieve here.Looking at the ASEAN region, what do you think is the future of e-learning? Could it be an added value, in order to make Malaysia a regional hub for education and maybe spearhead further regional integration?
Absolutely. The good thing about the electronic platform is that you are not limited by any border. The challenge for ASEAN is the language, as countries speak different languages. Educational institutions, especially private institutions, must start teaching in English. This would be a huge improvement for the whole sector, internationally.
When we started our job we only had approximately 100 international students per year. Nowadays, the number has grown to 300. The majority of international students come from the Middle East, Indian Sub-Continent, and South East Asia. Although this is our primary market, I am certain that we are now well-positioned also to attract students for the UK. Today, students at UNITAR are 40% Malay, 40% Indian, 5% Chinese, and 15% from the rest of the world. Therefore, we need to implement more English-taught courses.
At UNITAR we have an interesting articulated agreement with the University of Bradford, in England. The program consists of one year of study here in Malaysia, and two years in the UK. It is not a dual degree or an exchange program; rather it is recognised as Bradford degree. The articulated agreement here serves as gateway to send our students abroad and provide them with the best training. In addition to the Bradford program we have articulated agreements with six more universities. Surely, we tend to gravitate towards the UK, because of the many resemblances between our traditions and our legal system.
Another characteristic that makes our educational system a regional hub for ASEAN is the emphasis that we put in values. In this age where values are treasures, where greed is the dominant feeling in business affairs, we try to provide our students with the most precious values. It is not an easy task, but it is something that we are insistently trying to achieve.
For example, we are trying to brand ourselves as owners of Islamic values. Everyone is aware that Islamic finance is becoming much more relevant in the world, and that its most important feature is conservatism. On the other side, Malaysia is seen as very adventurous, or innovative as someone might think. We are trying to reproduce the Islamic financial system, to provide our students different point of views. In fact, many of our professors and staff members come from different countries and share different perspectives.There is a special opportunity in that direction, especially with the UK, since the UK is the second country in the world focusing on research and development of Islamic finance. Do you think that this is another field where UNITAR could build up new partnerships?
We are trying to develop financial engineering. People’s biggest mistake during the 2008 crises was investing in products they didn’t understand. That was because of a lack of financial engineering knowledge. At UNITAR we are trying to teach financial engineering to our students, and its possible implications with Islamic finance.
Financial engineering gives you the tools to analyse the risk of investments and build more secure partnerships. Today our partnerships bring us to nine different locations in the world. What do you think could be the contribution of technology and innovation in Islamic finance? Do you think that UNITAR can also be spearheading and really have a spinoff of its E-learning technology?
Many partners are bringing the knowledge together using our platform. This way we move towards business assimilation: the convergence of technology and learning. I think learning should be a lot more interactive, that is why using technology is important.
Unfortunately, financial engineering is not my field, but I think there is opportunity where this could take off. Which is why I think it is really important to have a platform where you can get various facets and views of Islamic finance and how new products are coming to place.
On a more practical perspective, how do we actually implement Islamic finance? We try to get on board on our advisory side as many practitioners as we can. We hope to develop this knowledge using our platforms. We have all the expertise and the links.Next year you are becoming part of this exciting IPO, what do you want to achieve before you get there? Also what would you like to achieve for UNITAR in 2020, since this is the benchmark that everyone considers as historical milestone for Malaysia?
First I think it is important to look at the components of the three universities that form the group: Asia Pacific University (APU) has been very stable recently, thanks to the support of the Sapura Group; KLMUC (Kuala Lumpur Metropolitan University College), which has a big entrepreneurial program and is currently undergoing a large transformation program; and UNITAR.
UNITAR is also going through a transformation process. After we separated from the CapSquare campus, our biggest issue was putting the right management in place. From a program perspective, transforming an existing entity is hard, because operational areas that you have to fix are monumental. First, we had to rebrand and engage the market again. Second, Sunway campus was very rundown, we were probably beside what it was the worst crime areas of Kuala Lumpur. We managed to move and secure this building. We renovated everything in two months.
But, going back to your question of what we would like to achieve. We have to be ready for trade listing within two years. In order to reach this, we have to apply a total operational clean up; cutting over to the new system is essential for us. Also, we will work on the branding and we will go to the international market.
In my opinion, the most important thing that we have done is seeing different type of students coming in, from different countries and from different socio-economic realities, many have the financial resources to afford studies abroad but they chose UNITAR, and this is a recognition od the quality of our education. We are also attracting international research centres and foreign Universities are picking us as their regional partner.
Nevertheless, retail market for education is shrinking. From last year we have shrank about 9%, in terms of intakes. Other places came down to 30%. Getting Visas is a major problem, because of the stricter procedures put in place recently. This is getting in the way of becoming a regional hub. Fortunately, language and pricing is not a big issue.
Honestly, I don’t think that the ASEAN single market will have a big impact. Countries still have their difficulties to access international market. We are trying to get ready and buffer our numbers, by fully adopting a corporate market. I’m worried about retail, hopefully a free flowing of people in ASEAN will be allowed, because then getting students here would be easier. But I understand that immigration issues are important as well.You are definitely an example of a Malaysian who comes back to contribute to the development of his own Nation. What are the key elements that you brought back with you from the UK experience and what are your favourite memories of the time that you spent in the UK?
The UK for me is like a second home, since I spent eight years there. I tried to find a job there, by sending my resume to certified architectural companies, but the recession in the late 1980s did not help; unemployment was too high.
One of the best memories regards the comic society that I founded in Cambridge that still exists today. I was very lucky to travel in every country of Great Britain and experience different exposures. I loved Northern Ireland’s magical atmosphere, and Scotland, which was very stony and stoic. I think there’s a huge sense of history that you get to appreciate more once you go abroad, in my case in the UK, given the historic connections between Malaysia and that country. It becomes easier to see the heritage of our cultures for example in Malacca and Penang. Even within the ASEAN region, we are such an interconnected society that it becomes even difficult for instance to try to find a definition of what does it mean to be Malaysian. We have had so many empires, such as the Siamese and Indonesian Empires, wherein different populations lived together. So, to some extent, I consider the idea of the Nation-State to be more divisive than anything else and therefore I support the regional integration within ASEAN, because we have a very strong and shared identity. When I think of the United Kingdom, I think the UK has been a catalyst for the development of Malaysia, in terms of infrastructure, administration, political system. Through my work, I am hoping to extend this natural affiliation.WAN AHMAD SAIFUDDIN WAN AHMAD RADZI
Chief Executive Officer, Unitar Capital Sdn Bhd
UNITAR International University (UNITAR)
Prior to joining Unitar Capital Sdn. Bhd., Wan Ahmad Saifuddin was recruited into Khazanah Nasional Berhad to start up the Malaysian Directors Academy (MINDA) for the Ministry of Finance. After this successful operation, he focused his efforts on building the Trust School Framework, a concept of private sector involvement to improve public schools with the Ministry of Education (MoE) through a public-private partnership agreement.
Wan Ahmad Saifuddin has also served as a technology head for e-Learning in iPerintis Sdn. Bhd. where he became the project team leader to implement e-learning for all of Petronas’ 25,000 employees globally. Prior to this, Wan Ahmad Saifuddin was with E-One Thousand Sdn. Bhd. as Chairman and Chief Technology Officer.
Mr Saifuddin started his career with Damansara Architect Sdn. Bhd. as an assistant architect and later rose to become General Manager of Product Development at DC One Technologies Sdn. Bhd. He has also taught extensively at Lim Kok Wing Institute of Creative Multimedia (LICT) and at the Multimedia University (MMU).
He possesses extensive experience in the educational field and in e-business. He holds a BA (Hons) in Architecture from St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge University, a Postgraduate Diploma in Architecture from the University of Edinburgh and a Masters in Architecture from St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge University.